Monday, 19 April 2010

The Nature of Technology: The Central Question of Our Times?

The fields of social and cultural studies of technology were one of the spectacular academic growth areas in the 1980s and 1990s. Spurred on by a growing awareness that recent innovations in information and communication technologies were bringing about a new knowledge-based society, the academic community re-committed itself to understanding a classic philosophical question. This was the ‘question of technology’ made famous by Heidegger and others: the question of the relationship between technology and the wider culture and society in which it is embedded.

Consequentially, the recent upsurge of academic interest in contemporary technological innovations has primarily concerned itself with understanding technology’s role as a facilitator of underlying social and cultural changes. Technology’s involvement in the processes of ‘globalisation’, ‘aestheticisation’ and the emergence of ‘postmodern’ social forms has been foregrounded.

As such, the question of technology can be seen as having framed a new academic agenda in contemporary philosophy. This new ‘technology consciousness’ has provided a context and climate within which new questions about how people behave, organise and interact as the result of the implementation of a panoply of new technologies.

One of the pedagogic outcomes of this new consciousness has been the appearance of a new tributary in the philosophical curriculum; an interdisciplinary area that has become known as Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS aims to ‘prize open’ the ‘black box’ of science and technology in order to show how science and technology shape and are shaped by both society and culture. Big questions are at stake here; in particular the question of relation between the individual, culture and technology at gthe beginning of the 21st century.

Can we say that the question 'what is technology' is the ultimate question for our times?

Neil Turnbull


  1. There is certainly a case to be made for this as being a key question, and we could go further and argue that technology is an extension of man and largely determines human progress and civilisation a la Friderich Kittler, Mcluhan etc.
    I for one have a personal aversion to deterministic theories of this type, however, and would prefer to think that technology needn't be accorded such an all-encompassing role as this within contemporary society. It would be foolish and downright contrary to deny its significant impact and influence, though, and certainly in terms of everyday philosophical concerns, it makes sense to say that technology impacts upon most aspects of our lives, simulataneously offering entertainment, communication and, crucially to capitalism, easy access to commodities and "lifestyle choices", while also being a commodity in its own right.
    If Marx is right and we are determined by the dull compulsion of the economic, then technology is a pretty all-embracing force, then.
    Is technology a positive force? well, I guess like any tool this depends on its deployment, but certainly its signficance for contemporary society can't be under-estimated and it would seem that the changes it has wrought are irreversible unless some major catastrophe occurs...

  2. I am not sure that we can view technology as 'tool' anymore - its significance seems altogether more fundamental.

    For example, as the French Marxist Andre Gorz recognsied, the advent of new information and communication technologies herald the end of the 'working class' as traditionally conceived. Computers have increasingly displaced the unskilled and semi-skilled worker - because these simple work functions are now easily automated - and now the vast majority of work is white collar information work. All these workers consider themselves 'middle class'.

    As many have claimed, new technology is leading us into a post-industrial society where 'work' will increasingly come to mean something other than its traditional defintion as as 'wage-labour'. However, although such claims are clearly wrong on this front, they do clearly show us the extent to which computers represent a profound challenge for what we mean by a 'politics of the left'. For what can this mean without some appeal to notions of 'class' and the like?

    Work today increasingly takes on an asbract 'immaterial quality'. Concrete work with material objects is no longer a useful characterisiation of post-industrial labour. Can the left survive such a transformation?

    Neil Turnbull

  3. I don't think the left can. These types of technology seem to be thoroughly divisive and localized, rather than grounded on solidarity. Take something like Facebook it is only localised to your interests and your friends. If someone you don't like happens on your wavelength you just de-friend them. This is a much more difficult prospect in the real world; we see this in Hardt and Negri and their immanent critique of capitalism which argues that new technologies already hold the seeds of progress in 'immaterial labour.' By definition, immateriality is removed from material determination. Immateriality is cannot ground the material causes required to enact progress in the specific situations that require it; a very strange type of Marxism indeed. Also I guess I retain the Heideggerean scepticism about technology and its nihilistic possibilities. Technology is both the poison and cure. This is why I suppose it never delivers on its emancipatory potential. One should sort the wheat from the chaff though; technology is valuable when it is conducive to a flourishing society such as medical breakthroughs, food transportation, and literacy.
    Iran and Twitter anyone?


  4. Dare I say that the emergence of New Labour in the 90s is symptomatic of the left's response to the societal impact of technology that we are all in agreement on here --namely, the left moved towards the centre political ground, absorbing right and left to some extent in the process, the implication being that the left no longer has a role to play in party politics??
    Certainly an acknowledgement that a truly left politician or party could no longer win an election in these new conditions of technological labour...

  5. Yes, as Walter Benjamin said in the 1930s - nothing hidered the labour movement as much as the belief that it was moving with the technological times.

    But of course this begs a very important question. What becomes of the left if it gives up its Marxist belief in the progressive nature of technological change?

    There is a temptation today, when the whole system appears to many be corrupt from top to bottom, to think that the left should adopt a moral critqiue of the political status quo. The problem with should 'high pitched' critiques is that they miss the point - that if there is any hope it all it doesn't come from the 'disgusted' of the middle classes but from those whose use of technologies allows them to transform themselves in transforming the world.

    Thus technology remains I think the central concept of the left - and it needs to think through its traditional concern with skills, education and the critqiue of the money economy in these terms. It hasn't managed to do this yet - and there is no guarantee that it will either - but it does need to retain a belief in the idea that people should be rewarded in terms of their contribution to (new) technological production.

    I haven't a clue how you do this; but it clearly points a way beyond the current anti-industrial rhetoric of the cultural left, with its committment to identity politics, lifestyle and the joys of consumer culture.

    For generations we have been over- reliant on the power finance capital to sustain such 'post-modern' ways of life. This is no longer sustainable and the left may have to spend a number of years in the intellectual and political wilderness if it is to come up with a viable alternative.

    Anyone for tennis?

    Neil Turnbull